On retention

Millennials seek feedback, work-life balance and greater flexibility

FOR LAW STUDENTS, September brings more than the anxiety of a new academic year. It also brings the palpable stress of On Campus Interviews, during which students attempt to land coveted jobs at elite law firms. But given the value and importance placed on these jobs, it is surprising that law firms have such high attrition rates for new lawyers. Why is that?

To answer this question, I developed a survey tool based on academic literature on generational theory and law firm management, interviewing millennial lawyers, Big Law firm managers and academics who study millennials. The responses to my survey painted an interesting, albeit dreary picture; it seems law firm leadership has failed to understand millennials’ values and workplace preferences. Consequently, the law firm as a workplace has failed to adapt to those needs and values.

Consider that both law firm partners and millennials disagreed or strongly disagreed with the following statements:

— a traditional law firm is the ideal work environment
for millennials;

— millennials are able to find meaning and remain happy throughout a career at a large law firm;

— large law firms are able to attract, retain and nurture the best millennial talent;

— the culture at large law firms is conducive to attracting and retaining millennial employees.

Leadership appears to have failed to adapt to millennials despite the implications for retention, talent management and succession planning. The reason appears to lie in the organizational culture of law firms, which is based on the billable hour model and the partnership model.

The billable hour model makes millennials feel that their work is commoditized and that the quality and meaning of their work is irrelevant. A millennial respondent to the survey commented that she experienced extreme pressure to maximize billable hours and felt “dehumanized by being described as ‘profitable’.”

The billable hour model is reinforced by the partnership model, which creates a process during which many of those who think differently than the current partnership, and would thus create change as leaders, leave the firm or are forced to conform to organizational norms, including promoting the maximization of billable hours. Millennial lawyers, for whom the luster of partnership is tarnishing, are choosing the former route.

So what should be done? It would be wrong to suggest eliminating the billable hour and partnership models, since these institutions have clear strategic business benefits. Rather, it is necessary to adapt these institutions to the millennial milieu.

A first step would be to implement reverse mentoring. This strategy flattens institutionalized hierarchies by pairing the most senior members (senior partners) with the most junior (millennial associates) as the mentors. This makes millennial employees feel valued and involved in the firm’s organizational structure. Furthermore, and most importantly, these relationships allow upper leadership to understand — and, ideally, learn to appreciate — millennial values.

This relates to a second recommendation: to change the evaluation of associates from one based on quantity (i.e., hours billed) to quality. Using a data-driven approach, clients can be block-billed for the anticipated number of associate hours for a given matter. Consequently, associates can stop counting hours without significant loss of revenue and, instead, can be evaluated on the quality of their work. This strategy accommodates the values millennials place on work-life balance, greater flexibility, and increased feedback. Because millennial lawyers take pride in their work, they will likely work harder to ensure the quality of their work.

Aly Háji is a recent graduate of the MBA/Law program at McGill University.